It occurs to me I should not be blogging now. It is 1 a.m. I am sick with bronchitis. I am exhausted. My daughter is sleeping in my bed. I have spent the past two hours mothering…but not to a child—to a man. A man who took nearly an hour to tell me what was wrong. It took him that long to run through all the various diversions he felt compelled to run through before finally being honest about the fact that he was suffering and needed me.
You women who read this will know what I am talking about—the way the men in our lives can emotionally exhaust us more than our children do.
Children are simple and direct: “Mommy, I am tired and hungry. Mommy, I miss Grandpa, and I am sad.” Their wants and fears come out easily, then the tears, then the hugs and kisses and the soothing, and it is over.
Not so with men.
Over the course of their wayward socialization and upbringing, men’s emotional directness has been bred right out of them…unless it’s something they can solve with a fist fight. If they have to cope with an emotion that is not anger (or that can’t be translated into anger), they are lost.
We women pay the price.
That’s because we are not just their wives and lovers. We are their best friends and the stand-ins for the mothers whose skirts they once cried into as little boys. They do not have our network of emotional sustenance. We fill our emotional buckets with the kind and encouraging words of other women. It is a resource men lack. If they do not have an understanding wife or girlfriend, their emotional buckets stand empty.
I have said this often enough on this blog—that women are the one and only emotional stand-in for men in most cases. Even your husband’s best friend isn’t going to be capable of much more than a pat on the back, followed by, “Hey, how about we go for a ride?”
A male friend said to me recently, “For men, emotional sustenance is supposed to be provided by a beer and a football game.”
But when beer and sports don’t cut it, the lucky few with loving women in their lives will come limping and sheepish to our arms, beating around the bush for a couple of hours, but coming nonetheless—to women who, more often than not, have just finished a 10-hour day at the office, made a barely competent dinner for the family, bathed, soothed, and put to bed a couple of kids, and are now sitting blithely for the first time all day on the floor in a corner of the bedroom gleefully painting toenails red. Thrilled for the first moment of peace and absence of need in their lives.
But then the man intrudes like a roving brown bear.
The best among us will set aside the red toenail polish, summon our last ounce of understanding and tolerance, and listen. But sometimes we just cannot help it. We turn the look of death on the beaten down husband, fling the bottle of red nail polish at the quickly closing door, and peevishly deny him sex for a week.
It’s not that we are cruel, guys. (And yes, I know you are reading this, slightly aghast.) It’s that we are exhausted. Women’s lives, whether because of biology or socialization, are loaded with caregiving—we tend to the emotional needs of our children, our friends, our lovers, our colleagues, even our pets, and we do it like it is second nature (because it is), but because we do it all day for days on end, we eventually run down, especially when the caregiving is sparingly returned.
One of my girlfriends told me recently she is actually grateful her husband has a few female friends. “It takes some of the heat off me,” she explains. “I get so bitchy when he’s needy.”
It’s not that we are angry at our husband’s or boyfriend’s failure to be an invincible knight in shining armor. Most of us are realists, and we do not expect men to fight off their dragons all on their own. We don’t think men in emotional need are weak. In fact, when we first fall in love, we find this sensitivity about them wonderfully endearing.
But sometimes, we do resent his deep emotional dependence on us, a dependence we do not share because we usually have female friends and relatives who tend to our emotional bucket filling long before the man in our life ever shows up with a water hose. By day’s end, we have often already been hosed down, dried off, and are ready for that glass of wine and a book in front of the fire.
But instead, in walks this man who has no deep emotional connection to anyone but us, and we can see from the wild look in his eyes that he is needy. And, as one of my girlfriends put it recently, because men have so much pent up emotional baggage, their need often turns into what she terms “emotional diarrhea.” She adds, “It’s like a contagion, and it can take over your life.”
Pretty soon your peaceful evening has turned into his dumping ground, as he recounts his screwed up day, awaits your verification that he is wonderful and his boss is just an idiot, and depends on you to restore his sense of manhood by sharing a rousing romp in the hay just to seal the deal that all is well.
Pretty soon it’s 2 a.m.
He is snoring peacefully, and you’re lying awake staring at the ceiling fan, wondering if any of your girlfriends are awake doing the same thing.
For the men who are reading this and wondering if they have deeply erred in sharing that most vulnerable part of themselves with their wives and lovers, let me provide some assurance: if the women in your life have to come your aid (no matter if they are staring at the ceiling wide awake at 2 a.m. afterwards), they adore you. Even if you’ve gotten a door slammed behind you with a bottle of red nail polish thrown against it a few times, still…rest assured…they love you.
If you can give a little back in return, then give it. Even if it as clumsy as a bouquet of flowers, still, give it. The acknowledgement will not go unnoticed. The women in your life do not need you so much as you think (sorry to disappoint, gentlemen). As a dear friend of mine puts it, women have other resources at the ready for their emotional sustenance: “Women are like the inflatable insulation that is blown into the wall and attic spaces of old houses — they simply know where the gaps exist and fill them, intrinsically. The men are not capable… It’s when we expect them to be that things go south.”
It is so true. Occasionally, however, give the unexpected. Fill a gap here and there, and watch that woman who has thrown a few too many bottles of nail polish and…ahem…other things at you morph into something a good deal softer and a good deal more ready to be there for you when life runs, as it will, counter to your expectations.